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A series of lawsuits related to the use of Ritalin were brought during the late 1980s and early 1990s, coincident with the campaign against ADHD and stimulant medication for children spearheaded by the the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a non-profit anti-psychiatry organization founded by the Church of Scientology.

In one of the earliest cases, LaVarne Parker, mother of a child who had been diagnosed with ADHD, filed a $150 million federal lawsuit against an Atlanta area school district, several physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA). She claimed that her son had been medicated with methylphenidate at the insistence of the school district and that the drug had made him violent and suicidal. She charged the APA with fraud, claiming that the Association deceived the public by supporting an overly broad definition of ADHD. The case was dismissed in 1988.

Similar cases were filed in Massachusetts, Minnesota and California. At the time, most of the suits involved alleged adverse side effects of Ritalin, and defendants included school districts, doctors, and the American Psychiatric Association.

Parker was represented by Washington attorney John Coale who, in another similar suit filed in Maryland in 1987, was quoted as saying, "We're after the structure, the system. It's a deterioration, a failure of our school system. ... Our goal is to put [Ritalin] off the market."

Ten years later Coale is still involved in a number of new class action Ritalin lawsuits--this time aimed at the drug's manufacturer, Novartis Corporation. In essence, all these suits charge the drug manufacturer with conspiring with the APA and Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD) to invent and promote the ADD/ADHD diagnosis in order to promote Ritalin sales. The lawsuits claim that as early as the 1950s, Novartis (then Ciba-Geigy) and the APA conspired to create the diagnoses of ADHD and ADD, and to include these illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to encourage the overdiagnosis of these ailments and to promote Ritalin as the drug of choice for treatment.

As with a number of other lawyers involved in the Ritalin suits--including Mississippi attorney Richard Scruggs--Coale previously had part of the groundbreaking national tobacco litigation in 1998. The Ritalin lawsuits may be the next class action battleground for this legal team that brought the tobacco industry to its knees.

Texas Lawsuit

The first class action lawsuit was filed in District Court for Cameron County, Texas on May 1, 2000 by attorney Andy Waters. The case was later moved to federal court in Dallas. In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that Ciba/Novartis conspired with the American Psychiatric Association "to create, develop, promote, and confirm the diagnoses" of ADD and ADHD "in a highly successful effort to increase the market for its product Ritalin." This effort included providing active support to advocacy groups like CHADD, "so that such organizations would promote and support (as a supposed neutral party) the ever-increasing implementation of the ADD/ADHD diagnosis as well as directly increasing Ritalin sales."

The suit also claims that Ciba/Novartis deliberately misled the public by releasing promotional material about Ritalin that did not address "the many significant hazards of methylphenidate use and prescription" including cardiovascular, central nervous system, and gastrointestinal problems, and pituitary dysfunction.

The suit attacks the American Psychiatric Association for its relationship with the drug companies, and alleged that financial donations and contributions from Ciba/Novartis and other members of the pharmaceutical industry "directly affected and caused the APA to make every effort possible to support and confirm a new medical 'diagnosis' for which a stated treatment would be methylphenidate, i.e. Ritalin."

Dr. Peter Breggin is a medical consultant for the case, as well as for the California and New Jersey cases (see below). He told FRONTLINE that Andy Waters decided to bring the Texas case after reading Breggin's book, Talking Back to Ritalin. Waters' firm, Waters and Krause, hosts a web site--RitalinFraud.com--with information about the lawsuit, and a form offering information about Ritalin and soliciting information about users' experience with Ritalin, ADHD, and CHADD.

Over the several months following the filing of the Texas case, lawyers from around the country got wind of the lawsuit and many contacted Waters. Soon, a legal team was formed, including a number of lawyers who were previously part of the national tobacco litigation. On September 13, 2000, the team brought two new lawsuits against Novartis, et. al., filing them in San Diego, California[1] and Hackensack, New Jersey[2] The new suits contained in essence the same charges as the Texas case.

The New Jersey case was filed in Bergen County Superior Court. The plaintiff class is described as "all individuals in the State of New Jersey who have taken the drug Ritalin."

The lawsuit in San Diego was filed on behalf of all California residents who have used or bought Ritalin, seeking unspecified damages. On March 8, 2001, U.S. District Judge Rudi Brewster dismissed the suit on the grounds that it failed "to state a cause of action because of a number of defects, including the absence of any allegations of causation, actional conduct, or damage." In addition, the judge ruled that activities by defendants intended to advance the medical understanding, diagnosis and treatment of ADHD were free speech protected under California's anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute.

The plaintiffs plan to appeal the judgement. "We're not going away, I will say that," attorney Scruggs told the San Diego Union Tribune after the court's ruling. The American Psychiatric Association hailed Brewster's decision as "a victory for sound medicine and free speech." An attorney for Novartis said that the ruling was "consistent with our view of all of this litigation: that it is contrary to the clear consensus of the medical and scientific community, and an inappropriate subject for litigation in our court system."

However, similar suits continue to be filed by other lawyers across the nation. In November 2000, a fourth case was filed in federal court in Orlando, Florida, on behalf of a local mother and a Puerto Rican couple. The case was brought by the Florida law firm Stanley, Dehlinger, and Rasher and San Juan attorney Peter Porrata. In February 2001, Porrata filed a fifth case in Puerto Rico District Court. According to a Novartis attorney, these new suits track the allegations in the California, New Jersey, and Texas suits very closely.

The Defendants'  Response: Novartis, APA, CHADD

When the California and New Jersey lawsuits were filed in September 2000, the drug manufacturer Novartis issued a general response:

"Any charge that Novartis somehow 'conspired' with nationally prominent professional and/or patient third-party groups is unfounded and preposterous. Furthermore, any charge that ADHD is not a medically valid disorder is contrary to medical evidence and psychiatric consensus."

Novartis supported this statement by citing the NIH Consensus Conference on ADHD, the American Academy of Pediatrics' diagnostic guidelines on ADHD, and the fact that the FDA, which only approves treatments for well-established medical conditions, has approved the use of methylphenidate to treat ADHD.

Regarding the charges that its support of CHADD and other advocacy groups amounts to fraud, since it is an attempt to "hide" its marketing strategies by funneling them through a supposedly neutral third party, Novartis said that although they had provided unrestricted educational grants to CHADD, for projects including a public service announcement on ADHD, and the translation of some ADHD literature into Spanish, they believed such grants were appropriate. "Novartis believes that comprehensive care for all patient populations include education and support as well as medication. Novartis is proud to help CHADD and other credible third-parties that provide valuable information to many people."

The APA's written response to the Texas lawsuit claims that the allegations are "ludicrous and totally false," adding that the lawsuits represent an "opportunistic attack on the scientific process." CHADD likened the lawsuits' allegations to accusing the American Diabetes Association of conspiring with the makers of insulin to invent diabetes.

As of April 10, 2001, the Texas, New Jersey, Florida and Puerto Rico cases are pending.

[1] Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp., No. 00-CV-1839 (S.D. Cal., Sept. 13, 2000) The class representatives are represented by Donald F. Hildre, Thomas D. Haklar and Peggy J. Reali of Dougherty Hildre Dudek & Haklar in San Diego; Marc C. Saperstein and Kevin Decie of Davis Saperstein & Solomon in Teaneck, N.J.; John P. McCoale and Diane Cooley of Coale Cooley Leitz McInerny & Broadus in Washington, D.C.; Richard Scruggs of Scruggs Millette Boveman & Dent in Pascagoula, Miss.; and C. Andrew Waters of Waters & Kraus in Dallas.

[2] Dawson, et al v. Ciba-Geigy et al. BER-L-7774-00

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